Popless Week Eleven: Music Nerds & Delicate Geniuses
After 17 years of professional music-reviewing, Noel Murray is taking time off from all new music, and is instead revisiting his record collection in alphabetical order, to take stock of what he's amassed, and consider what he still needs.
"Neighborhood" by David Byrne
Every time I get ready to conduct an interview, whether it's with a movie star, director, musician or writer, I always ask myself the same question: Who cares about this, really? Don't get me wrong. It's fun to talk with famous people—at the least, it gives me something to say when friends ask what I've been up to—and when the subject is willing and my questions are good, I like to think that I come out of the conversation with something worth reading. But there's unnaturalness embedded in whole process. Frequently I'm asking questions I already know the answer to, to people who don't really understand why anyone wants to know the mundane details of their jobs.
It's especially tricky to interview musicians, because I never know which type I'm going to get: the "music nerd" or the "delicate genius." The nerds are usually more fun. Last year I was assigned to interview Linkin Park mastermind Mike Shinoda for Performing Songwriter, and while I'm not a fan of his band's music, he was a terrific interview subject, because he's obviously given a lot of thought to every aspect of songwriting, production, performance and marketing, and he was eager to share. In fact, some might argue that this is exactly what's wrong with Linkin Park, that every note they play is over-considered.
I understand that criticism. I really do. But in general I find I have an affinity with music nerds, probably because they're as analytical by nature as I am. This week I listened to albums by a number of music nerds, including Death Cab For Cutie and The Decemberists, two bands that often get knocked in the music press for being too, well, nerdy. But to me, that kind of criticism often verges on the extra-textual. It has only a little to do with the actual music these bands produce, and a lot to do with their image, their interviews and their fanbase. Some people who spend a lot of time thinking about popular music try awfully hard not to associate themselves with other people who spend a lot of time thinking about popular music. (I know what that's like; I've been a comic book reader for 30 years.)
And truth be told, there is something to be said for the "delicate genius" types, who claim never to think about what they're doing, and get kind of irascible when you go looking for answers from them. I've interviewed both J. Mascis and Doug Martsch, and both of them treat questions about their craft as though I were asking them to describe how they brush their teeth. It's possible that their unstudied approach is essential to keeping their creative process flowing. Maybe they don't want to look too hard at what they've done, lest they screw up their mechanics. Or maybe, like a lot of artists, they secretly feel like frauds, and live in fear of some probing interviewer finding out that all their songs are really just stealthy re-writes of old Foghat tunes.
Some of my favorite musicians are the ones who do all their analysis in retrospect. Last summer I interviewed Jeff Tweedy, Jack White and Ryan Adams in the space of a month, and I got the sense that all three of them take their inspiration as it comes, writing songs in a kind of fevered compulsion. But after the fact, all three are perfectly willing to look back at what they've done, and puzzle out where their heads were at when those songs came to them, and what they might mean.
When I interviewed David Byrne five or six years ago, the biggest surprise to me—aside from the fact that in conversation, his speaking voice is deep and New York-y, not spaced-out and halting—was how freely he claimed to combine the conscious and the unconscious in his working methods. I had figured him for a meticulous planner, but he told me, "The songs come as they come. I try not to censor them from being whatever they want to be. And then afterward I realize that they have a common concern and I think, 'That must have been what was on my mind at the time.' The elements of all the stuff I'm listening to filters into the songs. Then I kind of tailor the words to fit the melody. With 'The Accident' (off Look Into The Eyeball) I had to write it three times. The second time I thought I had it. I wrote the words with the metaphor of an orchestra, describing what the different instruments were doing. I played it for some friends and they looked at me like... 'Not yet!' You can tell by their look, or by the way they say, 'Oh, that's nice.' But the trick is to make it not sound like you wrote the words and stuck them on some music. The trick is to make it sound like they came into being at the same time."
Those are the words of David Byrne: The kind of indelicate genius you could have a beer with. Or at least a good glass of wine.
Program note: I mentioned last week that I'm looking for ways to tighten this column up without listening to less music or unfairly dismissing some artists that have meant a lot to me (and a lot of other people). My solution is to divide up what used to be known as "Listened to, unremarked upon" into "Regrettably unremarked upon" and "Also listened to." In the former category I'm going to list artists that could very well have been at least "Stray Tracks" fodder, and maybe even "Pieces Of The Puzzle." They're being left out either because I don't have much to say, or I haven't listened to enough of their music, or what I might have to say about them I've pretty much said elsewhere. I encourage fans of those artists to start a discussion about them in the comment section, and I'll join in as much as I can. But I hasten to add that being consigned to "Also listened to" status shouldn't be considered a condemnation, any more than getting a write-up should be considered an endorsement. I don't like Dave Matthews Band more than Death From Above 1979; I just have something I want to say about DMB, and not so much about DFA.
Pieces Of The PuzzleDave Brubeck
Years Of Operation 1946-present
Fits Between Fats Waller and Vince Guaraldi
Personal Correspondence When I wrote up Chet Baker a couple of weeks back, I initially included a lengthy meditation on the racial politics of jazz, but I ended up deleting it, because it was poorly thought-out and potentially distracting; and besides, Baker's probably the wrong guy to make into a case-in-point for the "problem" of the white jazzman. Dave Brubeck probably isn't the right guy either; I mean, he's hardly Kenny G. But what makes him an interesting case study for how race can affect critical opinion is that Brubeck was a genuine innovator, who ironically brought jazz to the masses by going "further out," and experimenting with exotic rhythms and sounds. To some though, Brubeck will never be more than an appropriator, pillaging other cultures to make mathematically precise, drained-dry music for college dorms and cocktail parties. Though Brubeck was a champion of integration, and though few knowledgeable jazz historians would exclude him from the discussion of seminal figures from those heady post-bop decades of the '50s and '60s, I can still see why it would be annoying to a lot of passionate jazz fans that Brubeck has such a following among people who barely listen to any other jazz.
Enduring presence? Am I wrong in thinking that Brubeck suffers from cred issues among some ideology-minded jazz-ophiles? I'm a dabbler, so maybe I'm overeating from some stray pieces of criticism I've encountered here and there. I know that I personally find much of his music too soft and too staid, though his time signature experiments are as exciting and catchy now as they were almost 50 years ago.
"It's A Raggy Waltz" by The Dave Brubeck Quartet
Years Of Operation 1968-present
Fits Between Buddy Holly and Dwight Twilley
Personal Correspondence Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds' band
Rockpile came up so often when I was reading about rock 'n' roll in the '80s
that before I even heard their lone album Seconds Of Pleasure, I'd come to regard it as
probably one of the 10 best rock albums ever recorded. So, naturally, when I
finally did hear Seconds Of Pleasure, I was let down. I found it too formalist and too
retro, and nowhere near as rowdy as I'd imagined it in my head. And because I
liked Lowe a lot, I assumed that I just didn't like Edmunds. Big mistake. Ten
years ago, a friend of mine who's a major Edmunds fan made me a mix CD stretching
from Edmund's 1970 hit version of "Sabre Dance" to the beguilingly twangy
power-pop cuts he raced through on his stellar string of solo albums between
'79 and '81. I have seen the light. Post-rockabilly can be fun and refreshing.
I even think Rockpile is awesome now.
Enduring presence? Though Nick Lowe is rightfully regarded as the major creative force in Rockpile, Edmunds' best 18 songs (covers included) can definitely stand up to Lowe's best 18. Come to think of it, that's a 36-song anthology I'd love to hear.
"Crawling From The Wreckage" by Dave EdmundsDavid Bowie
Years Of Operation 1964-present
Fits Between Roxy Music and The Pretty Things
Personal Correspondence David Bowie was a "bridge" artist for me, easing the transition from classic rock—where songs like "Rebel Rebel" and "Sufragette City" were, oddly enough, staples—to new wave. Let's Dance came out right when I was starting to get interested in Bowie, and it was a good, superficial introduction for a good, superficial 12-year-old. I then got ChangesOneBowie, which contained all the hits I was already familiar with, and then Tonight, a much-maligned album that I have kind of a soft spot for. (The opening notes of "Loving The Alien" still make me mist up a little.) But I didn't dive deep into Bowie until I after I got out of college, and Rykodisc reissued all of his albums with bonus tracks and the like. I got in the habit of buying one of the reissues every couple of weeks and immersing myself in them, savoring Bowie's transitions from guise to guise, and how throughout, he always seemed to be working on multiple conceptual levels at once, without sacrificing any musicality. It's one thing to decide to write songs in a Philly soul style; it's quite another to have one of those songs be "Young Americans," a sprawling social critique full of vivid imagery and mounting passion.
Enduring presence? I should create a super-category for acts that supersede "Pieces Of The Puzzle." Bruce Springsteen would be there, and The Clash, and definitely David Bowie. I can go pretty deep with Bowie, but if I had to settle on one of his albums to live with for the rest of my like, it would have to be Hunky Dory, a brilliantly conceived and executed statement of purpose, marrying the nascent glitter-rock movement to cabaret, and offering a dense metaphorical universe wherein youth culture and gay culture are presented as a kind of superior mutation. It's more touching than it sounds, really.
"Oh! You Pretty Things" by David BowieDavid Crosby
Years Of Operation 1971-present (solo)
Fits Between Fred Neil and Buffalo Springfield
Personal Correspondence I wrote a little last week about the nights in my high school years when I would stay up late with my used copy of Crosby, Stills And Nash, listening to how the crackle of old vinyl added another layer of texture to the already-entrancing "Guinevere." At the time, I didn't care much about the division of labor in CSN, so I couldn't have identified "Guinevere" as a Crosby song. (As far as I knew, all the band's songs were collaborative.) It wasn't really until I started buying The Byrds reissues on CD—see the Byrds entry for that story—that I noticed the beguilingly mystical Crosby songs that the band usually buried on side two, if they included them on the albums at all. (There's a quite a few Crosby-penned outtakes on the Byrds CDs; that partially explains why he quit the band so early.) Shortly after my Byrds phase started, I read an article in a British music magazine about how Crosby's 1971 solo album If I Could Only Remember My Name is one of the era's unrecognized classics, and damned it that article wasn't spot-on. I would've thought that too much Crosby in one place would be, well, too much, but the contributions of Neil Young, Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell, Jorma Kaukonen, Mickey Hart, Phil Lesh and Jerry Garcia makes If I Could Only Remember My Name into the ultimate California/Canada jam session, full of songs that capture the feeling of staying up to 3AM, and trying to decide whether to go to bed or to keep on going and greet the sunset.
Enduring presence? Crosby has pretty much become a joke in popular culture, and probably for good reason. He's a bloated drug addict who shoots his mouth off about politics and hasn't written a decent song in 30 years. But even though Crosby wasn't the dominant creative force in either of his bands—or even on his solo album, where he's just one voice among many—the music he made between 1965 and 1971, when assembled all in one place, is fairly stunning. Rhino put out a three-disc box set covering Crosby's whole career two years ago, but it may be a little too expansive. (And it's missing "Triad," Crosby's inspiring salute to ménage-a-trois.) I'd love to see someone boil Crosby down to one good disc. I've done it myself, if they need advice on how to make it work.
"Song With No Words (Tree With No Leaves)" by David CrosbyDe La Soul
Years Of Operation 1987-present
Fits Between Funkadelic and A Tribe Called Quest
Personal Correspondence I don't want to keep hitting the same nail over and over, but my personal hip-hop heyday came between 1988 and 1994 (when I was in college and just after, probably not coincidentally), during the era when Public Enemy, The Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul were at their respective creative peaks. De La Soul is responsible for one of my five favorite hip-hop albums of all time—and no, it's not their debut 3 Feet High And Rising, which for all its many delights still sounds tinny and overstuffed to me. Nor is it De La Soul Is Dead, the darker-toned follow-up, which to me sounds way too erratic. To me De La Soul's crowning achievement will always be Buhloone Mindstate, a concise and musically dense distillation of the trio's concerns about hip-hop, black culture, manhood and parenthood. It's the first hip-hop record that I remember thinking displayed a pervasive sense of melancholy, and it became one of the core albums of my melancholy first post-college year. The De La Soul albums that followed pretty much let me down, but that's okay. One masterpiece is more than most musicians manage.
Enduring presence? Last year, Keith and I wrote a column about the odds of various acts getting elected to The Rock 'N' Roll Hall Of Fame in the future, and we pretty much agreed that De La Soul had no shot (despite Nathan's horrified protests). But that's the way it goes. De La Soul just hasn't shown the staying power of other hip-hop acts, no matter how much they're beloved by those who've followed them from the beginning. Do young hip-hop fans still buy 3 Feet High And Rising as a rite of passage? I hope so, but I worry.
"I Am I Be" by De La SoulDeath Cab For Cutie
Years Of Operation 1997-present
Fits Between Built To Spill and Teenage Fanclub
Personal Correspondence An editor friend of mine pressed Death Cab For Cutie's Something About Airplanes on me back in 1999, saying, "I think you'll like these guys. They sound like Built To Spill." Which they did. But I wasn't that impressed with the record, which sounded like standard-issue indie—all sound, no songs. So a year later, when Scott Tobias told me I ought to check out Death Cab's next album We Have The Facts And We're Voting Yes, I balked, because I hadn't pegged this band as a grower. But Scott knows my taste, and it turns out he was right: I liked We Have The Facts a lot. I was even more impressed with 2001's The Photo Album—a fully realized set of springy guitar-pop songs about bad memories and missed connections. Since that album, Death Cab For Cutie have gone through a boom in popularity—and a subsequent backlash—and have recorded two decent albums that to my ears suffer some from a case of stage fright, as Ben Gibbard and company try to figure out what a newly big-time rock band should sound like. The irony is that they nailed it on The Photo Album, where Gibbard's conversational lyrics are matched with inventive, vibrant rhythmic interplay. You could ignore everything Gibbard sings on The Photo Album and still get those songs' meanings.
Enduring presence? Nerdy-looking, thoughtful guys playing catchy, dreamy rock songs with minimal R&B; influence? In today's critical climate, Death Cab are practically begging to become whipping boys. Anti-hipsters hate Death Cab for being hipsters, and hipsters hate Death Cab for not being hip enough. But if the band keeps putting out good records, in 10 years or so no one will remember that Death Cab once represented everything that some people hated about indie rock. That's the nature of these things. It varies from season to season.
"Why You'd Want To Live Here" by Death Cab For CutieThe Decemberists
Years Of Operation 2001-present
Fits Between Robyn Hitchcock and Neutral Milk Hotel
Personal Correspondence Here's another one of those acts—like The Arcade Fire, Beck, and Guided By Voices—that I only came to like after an extended period of doubt, bordering on scorn. But The Decemberists didn't have as far to go to get into my good graces. I was only mildly disgruntled by the band's first two albums, and only because they sounded kind of samey, and derivative of Robyn Hitchcock and Neutral Milk Hotel. Both those records had some songs I liked a lot though—and "Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect" was arguably my favorite song of 2003—so I had bandleader Colin Meloy slotted into my "well-meaning" file. That is, until I heard "The Tain." To be honest, based on the lengthier songs on Castaways & Cutouts and Her Majesty The Decemberists, I didn't have a lot of interest in hearing the band perform an 18-minute indie-prog interpretation of an obscure Celtic myth. But from the moment the heavy drums and organ kicked, 45 seconds into "The Tain," a silly grin broke across my face, and it grew even wider two minutes later when the rest of the band started whipping up a maelstrom of sound. In my opinion, "The Tain" marks the moment when The Decemberists started taking the "rock" part of "indie-rock" seriously, and both the albums that followed, Picaresque and The Crane Wife, have benefited from Meloy and producer Chris Walla's understanding that literary references and dandyish airs alone won't cut it. As ridiculous as Meloy's "I was a whaler / I was a tailor" songs can sound at first, he and his mates play them to the hilt, leaving no sonic possibility unexplored. And Meloy's nasal monotone—always one of The Decemberists' major turn-offs—has gained more depth and range as he's had to figure out how to project over actual electric rock music. It's been an upward progression all around.
Enduring presence? Here's another one for the "new guilty pleasures" column: a band with a sizable fan base and several critically acclaimed albums, and yet in some circles, allying yourself with The Decemberists is tantamount to being a fan of Bowling For Soup. But hey, my cred was shot long ago, so what do I have to lose? I love The Decemberists, and love them more with each album. Yes, I know that makes me an NPR-listening, hybrid-driving, Wes Anderson-watching "dad." To be honest, I can't remember why all those things are supposed to be bad.
"Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect" by The DecemberistsDepeche Mode
Years Of Operation 1980-present
Fits Between Kraftwerk and Ultravox
Personal Correspondence One of the best concerts I ever attended was the Nashville stop of Depeche Mode's Music For The Masses tour, at a big outdoor amphitheatre. I wasn't even much of a Depeche Mode fan at the time—they're too blunt, even for me—and I've rarely seen an electronic-based band that was a great live act, but the fascist imagery and booming sound of the Music For The Masses show had an undeniable power, and I raised my fists and sung along with everyone around me, like a good little sheep. Generally speaking, I prefer the more techno-poppy Depeche Mode—the one that Vince Clarke helped found—to the mopey polemicists that emerged in the mid-'80s, but on that night in Nashville I discovered that if you make an effort to meet a band and its fans in their own particular headspace, it helps make sense of what they're doing, and why it might be appealing to many. A valuable lesson, with long-term ramifications for me.
Enduring presence? Like last week's The Cure, I'm pretty sure Depeche Mode is still a perennial for depressed teens everywhere. On the other hand, unlike The Cure, Depeche Mode have a very chilly, hyper-dramatic sound that requires a little more effort to accept as readily as The Cure's dreamy guitar-pop. Myself, I take my Depeche Mode in small doses, but I do keep it in stock.
"Now This Is Fun" by Depeche ModeStray Tracks
From the fringes of the collection, a few songs to share .
Damien Jurado, "Texas To Ohio"
Here's another one for the "talented, rootsy, nondescript" singer-songwriter file, though I know a lot of people who are big Jurado fans. He gets through to me only in fits and starts. Jurado's 2002 LP I Break Chairs has an appealingly rough country-rock feel, which Jurado more or less abandoned—to his detriment—on the follow-up, Where Will You Take Me? That said, the billowing sound of the WWYTM? highlight "Texas To Ohio" is one that really works, providing a moment of surging aspiration that provides a real respite from the strum-and-mumble of the rest of the album. (Fun fact: In this election season, I've been humming this song to myself a lot.)
"Texas To Ohio" by Damien Jurado
The Damned, "Machine Gun Etiquette"
For some reason, The Damned were never part of any punk canon I was aware of in high school, so I was taken aback when I picked up a cassette copy of Machine Gun Etiquette in the dollar bin at my university bookstore, and discovered what quickly became one of my all-time favorite rock albums. I'd previously only heard The Damned on an old episode of The Young Ones, where they sounded kind of like cartoony goths, so I wasn't expecting a record as varied and spirited as Machine Gun Etiquette, and in fact it was hard to settle on one song to represent all the record has to offer. I picked the hyper-driving title track, because it has one of the most awesome breaks in rock history, but I could've also gone with some of the glammier songs, the poppier songs, or even the ones that sound a little like Nick Cave. The Damned aren't a "piece of the puzzle" because I haven't gotten around to filling in the gaps in my collection. I mainly keep returning to Machine Gun Etiquette, a record that serves as an off-ramp from punk to the myriad styles that came next.
"Machine Gun Etiquette" by The Damned
Dan Reeder, "You'll Never Surf Again"
Reeder is a grizzled troubadour who writes a lot of jokey songs, but he sings them with such conviction—and such a honeyed tone—that he takes the typically insufferably smug singer-songwriter shtick and makes it work. This song is meant—at first—to be kind of ridiculous, and probably inspired by Reeder imagining the one piece of medical bad news that wouldn't really be so bad for him. But by the end, when Reeder starts naming all the Hawaiian beach spots that he won't get to hit, the prospect of a window closing honestly seems to choke him up. The forbidden fruit is always the sweetest.
"You'll Never Surf Again" by Dan Reeder
Daniel Johnston, "Sorry Entertainer"
I'm not one of those who thinks Daniel Johnston fandom is a big sham, because there is something touchingly vulnerable about his performing style, and as the many great covers of Johnston songs have shown, he's got a natural gift for melody that suits his wide-eyed, sometimes scarily naïve lyrics. At the same time, I found a lot about the documentary The Devil And Daniel Johnston pretty chilling, and in particular the idea that to many alt-rock scenesters, Johnston's schizophrenia makes him more "authentic." They chastise Johnston's parents for squelching his gifts by loading him up with drugs, which is an easy position for the fans to take, because they don't have to live with him. In a way, the whole Daniel Johnston experience is summed up in "Sorry Entertainer," a frightening, fascinating look inside his sickness, channeled through a performance that's not the least bit controlled. One of my favorite bands, The Jody Grind, used to do a ripping cover of this song, but over time, I've come to prefer the original.
"Sorry Entertainer" by Daniel Johnston
Danielson, "Bloodbook On The Half Shell"
By and large, the Danielson discography is full of interesting experiments and heartfelt expressions of faith and doubt that—to me at least—are often more interesting to ponder than to listen to. But Daniel Smith himself has gotten better with each new project, growing the concept from "family Christian puppet show writ large" to something grander and more legitimately inspiring. Or maybe I'm just affected by the fine documentary Danielson, A Family Movie (or, Make A Joyful Noise Here). After seeing that film, the subsequent album Ships—from which this seafaring suite comes—made a lot more sense.
"Bloodbook On The Half Shell" by Danielson
Darondo, "Didn't I"
I like to think of Darondo as a proto-Cody Chesnutt, working through his lo-fi R&B;/folk hybrid in the Bay Area a few decades before CC. Like most latter-day Darondo fans, I can thank Gilles Peterson for sticking this song on one of his crate-digging anthologies (and then the good people at Ubiquity Records for releasing a whole Darondo anthology). This song really is one of those proverbial "lost classics." Too raw in performance and production to ever be a hit, "Didn't I" is noteworthy for, as I wrote two years ago, "an unforced synthesis of the era's dominant soul and funk styles, which helped measure the magnitude of artists like Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, and James Brown, just by standing in their shadows." I added, "Darondo wasn't just an opportunistic copycat (though his lush string hangings and cooing background singers echoed the commercial trends of the day), and he wasn't kitschy (though his songs sometimes lurch out of tune, goaded by his wrenching falsetto). The x-factor in all of these tracks is Darondo's idle, jazzy guitar, which has the intimate quality of a man sitting on the edge of his bed. If anything gives Darondo's songs their feeling of off-the-cuff R&B; homage, it's the sense that he slapped them together just so he could pick a while."
"Didn't I" by Darondo
Dashboard Confessional, "The Secret's In The Telling"
I don't really have a dog in the Dashboard Confessional hunt. I wasn't one of the young people who'd apparently never heard an acoustic guitar before Chris Carrabba entered their lives, and I'm not one of those purists opposed to the kind of slick, radio-ready rock that Dashboard Confessional evolved into. In fact, when it comes to DC, I say the slicker the better. In essence, how different is this song from the Boston and Bryan Adams tracks I've posted in previous weeks, besides the absence of a built-in nostalgia factor?
"The Secret's In The Telling" by Dashboard Confessional
The Datsuns, "MF From Hell"
If last week's track from The D4 represented one of the welcome byproducts of the post-White Stripes "rockisback" movement, this would be well, the other end. This, folks, is how you smother a musical wave in its cradle. All this shrill thudder proves is that it takes more deftness than you might think to be Motörhead.
"MF From Hell" by The Datsuns
Dave Matthews Band, "Grey Street"
I hate to disappoint those of you who'd like me to savage the DMB, but honestly, I'm pretty Matthews-neutral. He's responsible for one of the dullest concerts I've ever attended, which is probably why I've never bought any of his albums. But I've enjoyed the occasional Dave Matthews radio hit and/or late night talk show performance, and a couple of years ago I borrowed a friends' DMB collection and made a decent hour-long iPod playlist out of it. I especially like the album Busted Stuff, which is less jammy and more song-y, and holds to a simpler sound that downplays the arena-rock moves in favor of something more like FM radio circa 1978. "Grey Street" would sound just fine wedged between a song from Billy Joel's 52nd Street and Gerry Rafferty's City To City. In the early days of Inventory I pitched an idea called "Songs We Like By Bands We Don't." This song was the inspiration.
"Grey Street" by Dave Matthews Band
David Allan Coe, "Death Row"
Coe's reputation as the ultimate badass country songwriter has been stoked in large part by his lengthy stint in prison—which inspired arguably his best album, 1968' Penitentiary Blues—and by rumors of his bootleg "trucker tapes," with their X-rated, racially inflammatory lyrics. (I say "rumors" because I've never heard those records and don't know anyone who has; though when I was a teenager, I knew plenty of friends who claimed to have "a cousin" that had one.) What I like best about the grey-market Coe tapes are the song titles: "Nigger Fucker," "Cum Stains On The Pillow," "Don't Bite The Dick," "Fuckin' In The Butt," and then, out of nowhere, "Jimmy Buffet." Anyway, as this song from Penitentiary Blues should make clear, Coe clearly has a way with language.
"Death Row" by David Allan Coe
David Mead, "Comfort"
It's strange that there's no real place in today's market for Mead, a soft-rocker who shares some affinity with Paul Simon and Michael Penn. Twenty years ago, he might've been a stealth star, beloved by middle-aged office workers who probably wouldn't even know the name of the songs they were singing along with, or the name of the guy singing them. If her were one degree starker or louder, Mead might've had a James Blunt/David Powter-type career. But Mead, like Josh Rouse and some other doggedly mellow singer-songwriters, has too much invested in idea of music designed to well, comfort.
"Comfort" by David Mead
The Dead Milkmen, "The Thing That Only Eats Hippies"
Decades before Los Campesinos! or Art Brut, Philadelphia's The Dead Milkmen poked basically harmless fun at scenesters of all stripes. I've always found their jokes pretty hit and miss, but the thoroughness of this gag-song is impressive, and a reminder of a time when the only thing punks hated worse than cops were hippies. (These days, it would be a different "H" word.) And given the subject matter I've covered these past two weeks, I especially like this line: "It ate Stills and Nash, before they could shout / And then it chewed on David Crosby, but it spit him out."
"The Thing That Only Eats Hippies" by The Dead Milkmen
Dean Martin, "Making Love Ukelele Style"
I've spent time with pretty much every one of the major crooners of the '40s and 50s, and Martin is the one whose charm eludes me almost every single time. That hitch in his voice—coupled with his lazy, drunk persona—keeps me at bay for some reason. I just don't hear any enthusiasm, passion or genuine conviction in anything he sings. He's arguably at his best on trifles like this, where indifference is a virtue.
"Making Love Ukelele Style" by Dean Martin
Debra Cowan, "Has He Got A Friend For Me?"
I first encountered this morose Richard & Linda Thompson ballad via Maria McKee's self-titled solo album, where the former Lone Justice frontwoman makes it sound like the lament of a woman who's long ago given up. Cowan's version isn't more hopeful exactly, but Cowan's desperation is at least more conversational. She's not expecting much, but she does still want to stay in the game. No matter the interpretation, I have yet to hear a version of this song that wasn't one of the most sadly beautiful—and, frankly, relatable—songs I've ever heard.
"Has He Got A Friend For Me" by Debra Cowan
The Delgados, "All You Need Is Hate"
On the whole, The Delgados' 2000 LP The Great Eastern is their defining moment, for the way it lets shapeless folk-pop songs first drift then surge, with the able assistance of producer Dave Fridmann. The follow-up, Hate, is far more bombastic, and loses some of the grace that makes The Great Eastern great. On the other hand, Hate contains The Delgados' best song, a smartass inversion of a handful of well-known rock love songs, polished up with an ironically Spector-esque sheen.
"All You Need Is Hate" by The Delgados
Regrettably unremarked upon: Dan Penn, Dangerdoom, Daniel Lanois, Dappled Cities, Darlene Love, David Porter, Dead Kennedys, The Deadly Snakes, Deerhoof, Def Leppard, The Del Lords, Delbert McClinton and Delta 5
Dempsey, Damien Rice, The Damn Personals, The
Damnwells, Damon Aaron, Damon Bramblett,
Dan Bern, Dan Deacon, Dan Hicks & His
Hot Licks, Dana Cooper, Danbert Nobacon, Dandy Warhols,
Danielle Howle, Danielle Peck, Danny
Barnes, Danny Dell, Danny Flowers, Danny Pound,
Dantalion's Chariot, Daphne Loves Derby, Darden Smith, The Dark Fantastic, The
Dark Romantics, Dark Side Of The Cop, Darker My
Love, Darol Anger, Darondo, Darrel Rhodes, Darrell
Scott, Darryl Worley, Daryl Leroi Gleming,
Dash Crofts, Dave & Ansel Collins, Dave
Alvin, Dave Bartholomew, Dave Derby, Dave
Hollister, Dave Olney, Dave Van Ronk, David & David, David &
The Citizens, David Andersen, David Arkenstone, David Ball,
David Bazan, David Childers & The Modern Don Juans,
David Dondero, David Essex, David Fridlund, David Joseph, David Karsten
Daniels, David Kilgour, David Ruffin, David Schwartz, David Shire, David
Tomlinson, David Vandervelde, Dawn, Dawn Of A Piccolo, A Day
In Black And White, Days Like These, Dayton Sidewinders, De Kift, The
Dead Bodies, Dead Meadow, Dead Voices On Air,
Deadboy & The Elephantmen, Deadstring
Brothers, Dean & Britta, Deana Varagona, Dear John
Letters, Dear Leader, Death From Above 1979, Death In Vegas, Death
Vessel, The Deathray Davies, DeBarge, Debra Cowan, Decahedron, Decibully,
Decomposure, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dee Dee Sharp, Dee Edwards, Dee
Robert, Deep Dish, Deer Tick, Degenerate
Art Ensemble, The Del McCoury Band, Del Shannon, Delays, The
Delfonics, Delma Lachney & Blind Uncle Gaspard, The Delta Rhythm Boys,
Deltron 3030, Delux, Den McTaggart, Denison Witmer, Deodato,
Department 5, The Departure and Departure Lounge
Next week: From Destroyer to Dwight Yoakum, plus a few words on my country-rock problem.